A Simple Soul

Stories Behind the Book

A SIMPLE SOUL by Vadim Babenko


The Yeltsin-Gaidar economic reform, which impoverished the entire Russian nation and created a small group of super-rich oligarchs, began in January 1992. I was working then at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Right after New Year’s vacation we were told that financing for the Academy had been cut off. All academic institutes were advised to survive on their own. Thus began the collapse of the fundamental science system of the former USSR – created many decades prior and considered one of the strongest in the world.

Our institute was engaged in new approaches to microbiology problems. Serious scientists, who were regularly published worldwide, worked for us. As soon as it became clear our salaries would no longer be paid, a mass exodus of employees ensued – to the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, France... Within two months the Institute was emptied by two-thirds. The only ones who didn’t leave were those bound to Russia by personal reasons. I too remained.

No, I had neither sick relatives nor thorny domestic problems. I simply didn’t want to leave the Russian language environment. Knowing already that my future was in literature despite my scientific successes, I decided it was time for me to write prose, my first big novel. And I believed to write in Russian I had to be surrounded by it on a day-to-day basis.

However, I needed to live on something – at the Institute they didn’t pay at all. In the Russia of that time it was possible to earn money only by reselling something brought from abroad – discounting plainly criminal jobs. Trade in consumer products was not for me; I chose the most abstract of goods – money. I began to collaborate with a firm that was profiting from currency speculation.

What we were doing wasn’t illegal – in the law of the new Russia there was simply a gaping hole about the issue. I formed a small team of some of my former scientist colleagues – all of them had excellent educations, doctorate degrees, and families with nothing to eat. The first five months everything went OK, but then we caught the eye of professional swindlers. They took notice and – quite easily and gracefully – set us up by slipping us some funny C-notes instead of real money. As a result, I ended up owing my "employers" an amount unattainable for those times: nearly five thousand dollars.

There was nowhere at all for me to get this money. However, my employers treated me well. They didn’t send tough guys after me with baseball bats, but suggested I work off the debt – by collecting weekly payments from the kiosks that they "protected" on Arbat Street. This I could not do and, persuading them to wait one month, I began seeking the path to my salvation.

Strangely enough, a path was found: in the US I located a partner who was interested in the technology I had been developing over the last two years. We decided to open a joint venture and, with a Herculean effort, I convinced him to send me money as an advance on my future share. This sum made up nearly ten percent of our "capital" at that time, which my partner had acquired from his friends. Nevertheless, he took a risk; it turned out to be the best decision of his life.

And now, having repaid my debts and wrapped up my Russian affairs, I stood in line for customs inspection in the departure wing of Moscow Sheremetevo Airport. November 1992 was passing. I was completely disappointed, both in Russia and in my abandoned novel. Actually, it was still too early for me to write something serious. And the country was quickly becoming a violent, disgusting place. All the worst of humanity had bubbled to the surface and run amok. Those who found it unpleasant could only get the hell out of there.

The customs officer, young and impudent, carelessly set to rummaging in my bag. Suddenly he lighted upon something, and his eyes twinkled. In his hands was a pack of diskettes that contained everything: all my computer programs, calculations, presentations, and so on. "This is restricted!" he announced with a sneer. "It’s not allowed to leave the country! We’re confiscating this."

I knew he was lying to extort a bribe, but I was helpless – his supervisors were far away, and the plane wasn’t going to wait. Besides, the customs administration would most likely take issue with something else to insure I wouldn’t press my rights. I had heard many stories about this practice, and I had no illusions.

The customs official and I stepped to the side. He forced me to empty my pockets, then reached into my wallet and took all my cash, leaving only some loose change for coffee.

On the escalator as I ascended toward my gate I resolved that never again – NEVER! – would I return to this country.


An Imperceptible Something

Our American business developed slowly. The first few years we had neither money, nor experience, nor connections. We made many mistakes but still held out until the quantity of our efforts turned into quality. We caught a break, and quick growth followed.

We hired many new employees. They were divided into two, nearly equal, sections: an American part, engaged in marketing and sales, and the Russians, who developed our technologies. Between these two halves arose an intense, sometimes hostile, opposition.

Almost the entire Russian part consisted of programmers who had just been taken out of Russia. The whole American side was of sharp, skilled men who had worked in successful hi-tech corporations. These were very polarized communities. The mediator between them was me: I managed all the internal life of the firm, while my partner was responsible for all the external.

The marketing and sales boys had no love for the programmers because of their "wildness" – a total lack of the communication skills customary within an American company. The programmers disliked our Americans, sensing their contempt and mockery. I must admit, it was also hard for me to deal with the programmers – by this time I had distanced myself quite a bit from Russian habits and manners. Nevertheless, the situation required it, so I tried my best to reconcile these groups with each other.

When enough programmers had arrived to yield some kind of critical mass, I suddenly sensed that my attitude toward them had shifted. I completely and definitely felt that in the Russian part of our firm something imperceptibly bright and lively was recreated and extended throughout: some sort of particularly Russian spirit from time eternal, which had once been so dear to me. I had been sure it had breathed its last, crushed and destroyed under the years of Perestroika’s "re-structuring." Almost all the programmers were young people who had grown up in the 90s, the years of a terrible decline in everything intelligent and spiritual. Nevertheless, I understood that some important part of it remained – though it was disguised by the veneer of a new age.

And then I noticed the two polarized halves were no longer so hostile. An interest arose in each toward the other – on its own; my efforts did not play a noticeable role. As for the programmers, this was natural: having gradually become acclimated, having ceased to hesitate and be frightened, one way or another they began to understand the country in which they now lived. But the Americans also, without having, it would seem, any reason to do so, sought to learn – feeling, as I did, that there indeed was something about the Russian part of the company that was worth getting to know. With increasing frequency they began to ask me questions about Russia, Russian life, culture, and so forth. All the more often, the American and Russian employees conversed together, despite the language barrier. We even started holding Russian parties with plenty of vodka – which became very popular among the Americans...

I realized my notions of the country where I had grown up and then left were one-sided and not quite accurate. The animal instincts that had been unleashed at the beginning of the 90s could not suffocate an essential inner force, inherent in the earth and its people. Nevertheless, I was still far from going there again – even for a short vacation.


The Visit

In 2000, just at the turn of the second millennium, I finally had to go to Russia on private business. Moscow had changed – it was not as I had left it. It had endured redistributions of power, periods of poverty and an emergence of new riches, followed by acute crisis, which again left many in ruins. In 2000 the capital, like the rest of the country, felt pretty good. Oil was rising in price, life was stabilizing, and the ruling regime firmly held all the strings. Even the crime had abated – in the city one could now safely walk down the streets. So I did just that – I wandered around Moscow, trying to sense its spirit.

And sense it I did. That same "imperceptible something" the Russian programmers had brought to Washington, DC made itself felt there. The invariable Russian soul, which almost hadn’t changed at all over the last fifteen rough-and-tumble years, was identifiable – for those who troubled themselves to look for it. Whether its presence was detectable to others, I didn’t know. Maybe it was, but I saw this invariable spirit had a difficult path to trod. Clearly, it didn’t belong on the list of modern Russia’s values.

I took a month-long layover in Moscow. I even got a job as an instructor at a tennis club – out of curiosity and in the interest of research. Soon it became obvious: that "imperceptible something" was waging a desperate battle without long-term chances. In Moscow, against a rising, insolent, and durable consumer society that had stalwart priorities. In the provinces, against indifference and fatigue, and the scalding despair of people trampled by the authorities for a decade and a half.

This was a confrontation of talented, thinking individuals versus the gray masses who despised any extraordinariness. A struggle between amazing inner goodness, some kind of penetrating insight of mind, and boorishness, complete disrespect toward anything personal and truly human. I thought I should write about that in due time. At that moment – in 2000 – I was not yet ready.

I started visiting Russia every year – in Moscow, in the provinces, at its different extremities. And each year it all got steadily worse there. Richer, better fed – but increasingly boring and gloomy. The gray masses were confidently on the offensive. The ruling regime – a regime of the most comprehensive dullness – crushed all beneath it. I felt even more strongly that I had to write about this – while the "imperceptible something" still hadn’t disappeared entirely.

When the book was written and published in Russian, the criticism flew at me from all sides. They accused me of all manner of transgressions – particularly of writing about the country without living in it. They labeled me a nostalgic immigrant with a biased viewpoint who was attempting to create an image of Russia "for export." I did not justify myself and explained nothing. I knew what I wanted and what I had managed to achieve. I knew I had captured and put into words only the smallest fraction of what truly remained in that great land. A lot of things I wasn’t able to grasp; they slipped away, as they have from others. But at least I made the attempt.